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Public health researchers developing predictive tool for lead exposure

For Immediate Release Apr 5, 2022

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana University researchers are working with communities in Indiana and North Carolina to help test for lead in household dust, soil and water. The goal is to develop a tool that can predict which residential households are at risk of lead exposure and provide actionable insights to lower that risk. 

Even low levels of lead exposure can cause intellectual disabilities and behavioral disorders in children, as well as cardiovascular issues in adults. 

In the United States, state and local agencies typically rely on the detection of lead in children’s blood tests or the age of a home to determine which households need interventions to address environmental lead hazards.

“The current approach uses children as lead sensors; households typically are only tested after elevated levels of lead are found in a child’s blood during a visit to their pediatrician,” said Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. “Lead causes irreversible health effects, so there is no safe level of lead exposure for children or adults. Our vision is to create a 21st-century approach that prevents lead exposure before it ever happens by predicting houses where lead is most likely to be a problem.”

The study is led by MacDonald Gibson and co-principal investigators Emmanuel Obeng-Gyasi of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Jennifer Hoponick Redmon and James Harrington of nonprofit research institute RTI International.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the study will use machine-learning techniques and public data on residential lead exposure risks to create a website and mapping tool to predict lead exposure for Indiana and North Carolina households. 

The researchers are asking communities in each state to help them test and improve their predictive model by signing up to collect and ship water, dust, and soil samples for laboratory analysis.

Selected residents in Allen, Delaware, Marion, St. Joseph and Vanderburgh counties in Indiana and Guilford County in North Carolina will receive postcards inviting them to participate in the study. Participants will receive test kits and simple instructions in the mail to collect and ship their samples. Each participant will receive personalized and confidential results, along with actionable recommendations on how to decrease lead exposure, if needed.

Partner organizations also involved with the study include the cities of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Greensboro, North Carolina, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, nonprofit advocacy organization NC Child and the NC Housing Finance Agency.

What they’re saying:

“We look forward to the valuable tools that will develop from this study because they will help us help more families to reduce their lead exposure risk. We encourage the communities to take advantage of this great resource and opportunity to reduce lead hazards in their homes.” – Samantha Spergel, director of real estate strategic initiatives and engagement, Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority

“Whether you are pregnant or have young children at home, lead exposure is a serious concern. This study will help families in our state understand the level of lead risk in their home and get rid of it before exposure occurs. And that’s a win for all North Carolina kids.” – Vikki Crouse, policy analyst and project director at NC Child

“There are various potential environmental hazards in every home but the thing with lead is this: We have lots of data confirming it is a serious hazard and years of practice at reducing the hazards. What is often lacking in communities are more methods of citizen education, low-cost-private investigation as well as financial support to reduce any identified hazards. I am excited to be allowed to provide my view from the low-income housing community for this project as it seeks to look at all three elements: education, investigation and hazard reduction in the participating communities.” – Donna Coleman, senior housing rehabilitation officer, NC Housing Finance Agency

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